Review | Round House’s take on ‘Radio Golf’ finds just the right frequency


Politicians: Are you tired of people tuning out your stump speech? You might find a more interested audience in an opinionated handyman (and former bank robber) named Sterling Johnson, a character in Round House Theatre’s absorbing “Radio Golf.”

At one point in this August Wilson play, a skeptical but focused Sterling reads aloud from a mayoral candidate’s speech as published in a newspaper. At Round House, thanks to the marvelous actor Kevin Mambo, the sequence is arresting and sneakily droll. The grunts and finger snaps that Sterling throws in for emphasis as he reads shake up the cadences. The political bromides come out suffused with the handyman’s pugnacious personality.

Mambo’s ability to fill a potentially minor moment with zest speaks to the richness of his performance as Sterling, who is now funny, now oracular, now a case study in unpredictable action. It’s one of the fine acting turns that grace this production, directed by Reginald L. Douglas with keen appreciation for Wilson’s rhythms and vibrantly idiosyncratic characters.

A musing on memory, gentrification and the clash between community and self-interest, “Radio Golf” is set in Pittsburgh in 1997, making it the work that rounds out Wilson’s cycle of 10 dramas respectively set in each decade of the 20th century. The play centers on Harmond Wilks (JaBen Early), a real estate developer running to be the city’s first Black mayor. As if politics weren’t demanding enough, Harmond and his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Ro Boddie), are finalizing a development project that would bring apartments and a Whole Foods to a hard-up Pittsburgh neighborhood.

The duo’s plan requires knocking down an old house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, once home to Aunt Ester — a meaningful and mysterious on- or offstage presence in Wilson’s play cycle (including “Two Trains Running” and “Gem of the Ocean,” which Round House staged in 2014 and 2018, respectively). Needless to say, complications ensue.

Portraying a complication named Elder Joseph Barlow, the charismatic Craig Wallace radiates an intriguing mix of dottiness and acumen. As Harmond, Early finds the doubt and vulnerability beneath the character’s hard-charging careerism, and Renee Elizabeth Wilson brings apt energy to Mame Wilks, Harmond’s wife and campaign strategist. (Moyenda Kulemeka supplies the character-appropriate costumes.)

And Boddie is a knockout as Roosevelt, a wheeler-dealer and golf enthusiast. In one memorable scene, the phone rings in Harmond’s office (complete with an embossed-tin ceiling in scenic designer Meghan Raham’s rendering). The call announces that the city has declared the neighborhood around the planned Whole Foods to be blighted, unlocking potential federal urban-renewal funds for the development deal.

Ecstatic, Roosevelt does a dance, crowing, “Blight! Blight! Blight!” It’s another ace acting moment, showing that “Radio Golf” is on the right frequency.

Radio Golf, by August Wilson. Directed by Reginald L. Douglas; lighting design, Harold F. Burgess II; sound designer/composer, Matthew M. Nielson; properties coordinator, Chelsea Dean. About 2½ hours. Tickets from $46. Through July 2 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.



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